An American Thanksgiving in Taiwan

One of the great things about living in a new country is learning about different cultural traditions, and getting to celebrate new holidays with the friends you’ve made.  But sometimes, the downside is that you don’t get to celebrate the holidays you’re accustomed to with your friends and family back home.  I’ve heard that when you travel for an extended period of time or live abroad, feelings of homesickness often hit during the holiday season.

I found this happening to me last weekend.  A few days after Thanksgiving, I was walking around Luna Plaza, the local indoor mall I live near.  Living near there is great, because you never know when you’re going to want to go see a movie at the theater or have a craving for the Dunkin Donuts pre-ground coffee that you can only find at Carrefour. As I walked in, Christmas music started playing on the speakers, and I noticed ornaments and tinsel decorating the mall.  It reminded me of walking through Oakbrook Mall back home, and made me wonder who I was going to watch Love Actually with this year since my mom and I aren’t on the same continent.

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Celebrating Thanksgiving with Chinese food!

Some holidays, like Christmas, are celebrated here.  It’s not celebrated by everyone, and it doesn’t always have religious connotations here, but some parents do buy gifts for their children on Christmas and have a small celebration.  That being said, we don’t get Christmas off of school.

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American Thanksgiving!

I’ve found that many Taiwanese people have some knowledge of American holidays like Halloween and Thanksgiving, even though they don’t celebrate them.  But, although trick-or-treating through neighborhoods is not a thing here, kindergartners at one of the elementary schools I work at dressed up on Halloween, had a costume contest, and trick-or-treated to different classrooms around the school. Many American holidays are known about or observed to varying degrees here.

But, even though I felt a little homesick walking around the mall, I feel like I got lucky this holiday season, because I got to celebrate Thanksgiving not one, not two, but three times!  A few weeks ago all of the Fulbright ETA’s in Taiwan gathered in Taipei for a Thanksgiving dinner.  It was a great night filled with some yummy food and catching up with the ETAs from other locations.

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Celebrating with new friends.

My second Thanksgiving was celebrated with one of my friends from work.  A coworker invited me and my co-teacher Ellen to her house on Thanksgiving day for dinner.  She knew it was Thanksgiving in America, and even though it wasn’t a holiday she celebrated, she wanted to celebrate with me because she knew I was missing home!  It was incredibly thoughtful, and I had a wonderful time.

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Celebrating with the local ETAs. Not too shabby of a view.

And finally, the day after Thanksgiving, the Yilan County ETA’s gathered at GTX (one of the apartments in Luodong) for our own Thanksgiving extravaganza.  We ate American food galore (although no Turkey), and everything was drenched in cheese, a food I feel is seriously lacking in Taiwan.  The night ended with all of us on the roof of GTX singing karaoke to Smash Mouth’s “All Star” while popping champagne.  Definitely a Thanksgiving to remember.

 

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We hiked up to the highest point in Maokong to have lunch and tea!

One of the other exciting things I’ve done over the past few weeks is ride the Maokong Gondola in Taipei.  This was something I had wanted to do since coming to Taiwan, and I finally had the opportunity when we were in Taipei for the Fulbright Thanksgiving dinner.  You take the Brown line MRT to the Taipei Zoo stop, and then walk a few blocks to the gondola, which you get to take up a mountain!  Maokong is known for its locally grown tea, and its a popular tourist spot to enjoy beautiful views while eating lunch.  Even though it was rainy and a little chilly, we had a great time, especially because we had some steaming hot tea to warm ourselves.

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Take the MRT and hop on the gondola!

Taipei is growing on me as a city.  At first I thought it seemed big and anti-personal, but now that I’ve been there a few times, I’m starting to learn my way around.  The MRT system is easy to use, especially if you have a swipe card that allows you to just scan the card on your way in.  And it doesn’t hurt that all of the MRT signs are in English as well as Chinese.  There’s still tons of the city that I haven’t explored, but I want to take better advantage of my location so close to the city as the year continues.

I’ve also been continuing to run over the past month or so.  Even when it’s rainy out, I try to make myself get some fresh air and head to the running paths.  Here are some of the views from my usual path.IMG_3310IMG_3359

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I feel like my phone camera doesn’t really do these views justice…

And, on a final note, I’ve been trying some of the different snacks here in Taiwan.  One of the strangest, yet surprisingly good things I have tried is a spicy ramen cookie.  It’s made out of noodles, and it tasted like flaming hot cheetos.  Not bad!

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The Heat!

I love cold weather.  When I was a kid, I had a snowboarding t-shirt that said “never summer.”  Sure, I like to go to the beach, swim, and surf, but if I had to choose a favorite type of weather, it would definitely be the crispness of fall and the start of winter. I am a girl made for boots, scarves, and leather jackets.

That’s why, when I came to Taiwan, one of the most challenging things for me to adapt to was the heat.  I did a lot of research on Taiwan before coming here, but for some reason, it never struck me just how hot it was going to be, especially since we arrived at the beginning of August.  I think the first few weeks of 90 degree plus days with humidity were the hottest consistent weather I have ever felt.  Simply walking outside was enough to make me start sweating buckets.

That’s why, over the past week or so, as the weather has started to cool down, it has been glorious.  The weather is finally perfect for running, something I have been starting to take advantage of now that I’ve found a good running path by the river.

But, this change in the weather has had unintended consequences.  *Dun dun dun* Prior to coming to Taiwan I researched every corner of the internet for advice on living in Taiwan.  One Fulbright pamphlet I read said that after a few months of living in 90 degree heat, your body gets used to it, and that when the weather starts dropping you will feel more cold than you normally would back in the states.  “That won’t happen to me,” I told myself.  “I love the cold…”

It did….

The other night it was 70 degrees and I found myself putting on leggings, a sweater, and a jacket as I got ready to drive my scooter.  I was wearing an outfit that I had worn in the winter in the Midwest, during weather that I would definitely consider shorts weather back home.  So much for my resistance to cold I thought I had developed from living in the Chicago suburbs my whole life.

Plus, even if the weather is nice out, you learn pretty quickly to bundle up when you drive your scooter, as you are exposed to the elements when you drive, and the winds can get pretty chilly when you’re driving fast!

Oh well!  I guess it’s all relative.  So for now, I’m going to keep bundling up as I go for a run.

And, as the weather cooled down and October neared its end, the Yilan ETA’s had an entire week off of work, which meant it was time to do some exploring on the island!  October 20-26 were the National Games in Yilan County, a country-wide sporting event that draws participants from all over Taiwan.  And, because the events were happening, we had a week off of school.  No other counties had this week off, so it was the perfect time to do some exploring on the island without having to worry too much about the crowds.  To make up for this week off, the Yilan ETA’s had to start work a week earlier than everyone else back in August, but it was worth it!

Unfortunately, during the first part of the week I wasn’t feeling well, so I stayed home instead of visiting Hualien, the county just to the south of us.  However, as the week progressed I began to feel better, and joined up with my friends for the Kaohsiung portion of the trip.

Kaohsiung (the “k” is pronounced like a “g”) is a port city in the south of Taiwan, and its  about a five hour bus ride or a little over two hour high speed rail journey from Taipei.  One of the things I noticed immediately about Kaohsiung is that it feels more laid back than Taipei.  One of the ETA’s who is placed in Kaohsiung said Kaohsiung is to Taipei like Chicago is to New York City.  Although I’ve never been to NYC, I can definitely attest to the similar laid back feel of both Chicago and Kaohsiung, especially since they are both located near rivers and either lake or ocean coastlines.

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Top: Liuhe Night Market. Bottom: The Dome of Light at the MRT Formosa Boulevard Station in Kaohsiung.

During our time in Kaohsiung we explored several parts of the city, from the Pier-2 Art Center, to the Liuhe night market, to Cijin Island.

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View from the ferry as we made our way to Cijin Island.

My favorite part of the trip was visiting Cijin Island, a district that you have to a take a five minute ferry ride to get to.  The whole place was filled with tourists and had a very vacation-like feel to it.  The palm trees, coastline, and nice weather reminded me of being back in the Caribbean.

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See what I mean?

Definitely the most fun thing that I did during my time in Kaohsiung was renting an electric bike to tour Cijin Island.  My friend Tim and I decided that electric bikes would be more fun than walking, so we rented some and set off to explore the island!  And it was super fun.  Cijin was definitely a district that was meant to be explored on bike, and it’s even better when you don’t have to pedal!  We drove to one end of the island, went through the Cijin Star Tunnel, and parked our bikes to walk up to the Cihou Fort and Lighthouse.  Then we rode the other way down the island, overlooking the ocean, to the Cijin Wind Turbine Park.   This is a perfect afternoon activity, and we managed to do everything within the allotted two hour time frame during which we rented our bikes.

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Cihou Lighthouse, Cijin Star Tunnel, and the wind turbine park.

I feel like I only scratched the surface of Kaohsiung while I was there, but it left a good impression, and I think I will definitely be back!  There are so many things that I still want to do there, like visiting the Dragon and Tiger Pagodas, as well as the Fo Guang Shan Buddha Museum, where there is a giant Buddha statue.  And, since the weather in Kaohsiung is nice year round, I don’t think there’s ever a bad time to go back.

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This temple had a place where you could write and post prayers and wishes for yourself and others. 

Moon Festival and Hot Springs

One of the cool things about living in a new culture is that you get to experience different types of holidays.  In Taiwan, I have been learning about holidays I had never heard of before coming to Taiwan! Currently, Taiwan is celebrating Mid-Autumn Festival, which is also known as Moon Festival.

Moon Festival is one of the biggest holidays in Taiwan and it’s often celebrated by barbecuing, a little vacation time, and eating pomelos.  Giving friends and family members pomelos with silly faces on them is also a common tradition.

This year, Moon festival was on a Wednesday, October 4, which meant that we got a day off of school.

Over the past few weekends, I’ve seen different types of celebrations happening surrounding Moon Festival.  My roommate Annys and I were invited to a community barbecue with my co-teacher Alice, where we got to listen to some live music and eat every type of grilled meat and seafood you can imagine.

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Community BBQ, complete with grilled delicacies!

Moon festival is celebrated in many places in Asia.  It’s a harvest festival, and there’s also a story surrounding it about a beautiful women named Chang’e, who turned into a goddess and lives on the moon.

In addition to holiday shenanigans, I have been starting to explore not only Yilan, but the surrounding areas as well.  My roommate Michelle introduced my to Hao Hao Kaffe, a coffee shop with modern aesthetics in Yilan that also serves some really yummy food.  A great place to do some work (or procrastinate) on the weekends.

Something that has surprised me is the diversity of food here.  Yes, there is Taiwanese food here, as well as Japanese and Korean, which I expected.  However, we’ve also come across American, Italian, and even Ukrainian food! As someone who likes lots of types of food, this is great. And, as much as I love dumplings, I’ve come to the conclusion that maybe I should start branching out and trying other foods.  My friends and I have actually found several places that sell good American food, from pizza to burgers and beer.  The best are Slobber and Darwin Bistro, both in Yilan.  And if you’re craving some delicious eastern European cooking (because who isn’t) you can check out Mr. Balagov Ukrainian Cafe, where you can chow down on some homemade meatballs and mashed potatoes.  Oh, and get the mocha latte, you won’t regret it.IMG_2421IMG_2535

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Hao Hao Kaffe, some cider from Darwin’s Bistro, and a good ‘ole American burger at Slobber.

Last weekend, my host family took me to the town just north of Yilan, which is called Jaoxi.  Jaoxi is famous for its hot springs.  It’s also one of the only places in the world that has cold springs.

There are tons of places to go in Jaoxi to experience the hot springs, from public pools with just a little admission fee to five star hotels.  My host family and I went to a pool with three different springs: one with cold water, one with medium water, and one with really hot water.  We then went and ate some really yummy Japanese food.IMG_2553IMG_2550

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Hanging out in Jaoxi.

And, on some rainy Friday nights my friends and I have gone to see a movie.  American movies are popular here, and it was fun to go see a movie and see the Mandarin subtitles running across the bottom of the screen.  It is interesting to see that American pop culture is popular across the world.

Adventures in the Rain

As we approach the halfway mark of September, school is officially in session and we are in  full-blown work mode.  Slowly but surely I am adjusting to waking up early every day and working for 8 hours (my first full-time job!)  Most of us have also started taking Chinese classes at Fo Guang University in Yilan City, so we are definitely keeping busy.  I take Chinese class on Monday nights, and I like having a full day on Mondays because it makes me feel like I’m starting the week off on the right foot.  Plus, my favorite dumpling place that I have discovered is right near the university (yum…. spicy Korean dumplings).

My birthday was also last week, and the other ETA’s and my co-teachers Ellen and Alice threw me a surprise party.  What a great way to kick off 24!

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And, in other exciting news, I finally passed my scooter test!  The driving portion didn’t seem nearly as daunting the second time around, and my co-teacher Ellen took me to buy a scooter right after I passed.  I’ve been driving to school for almost the past two weeks now, and I’m beginning to learn my way around. Although sometimes I manage to get lost when I’m only two blocks from my apartment…

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Tea and brownies in Su’ao.

It’s definitely an adjustment getting used to how people drive on the roads here.  Scooters whiz in between and around cars, and cars often drive in the opposite lane to get around slow scooters and pedestrians.  In general, it seems like the rules of the road are like the pirate code; the rules should be seen more as guidelines and honestly most people just ignore them.

My roommate Michelle, who is from Pennsylvania, commented that most drivers here, scooters and cars alike, often make a “Pittsburgh left.”  What this means is that when you are at a red light waiting to make a left turn and the light turns green, everybody guns it to make the turn even though oncoming traffic has the right of way. Left turns are definitely one of the more challenging parts of driving here, and you have to be really careful when you make them.  Sometimes on scooters you make what’s called a “hook turn,” which is a driving technique created to avoid having scooters make dangerous left turns when there is oncoming traffic.

But as I get more used to the traffic and driving on a scooter, I am definitely starting to appreciate the freedom that having a scooter allows. You can maneuver easily down the narrow and crowded streets, and now I have more freedom when it comes to exploring Yilan and the surrounding areas.

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Pop of color on a rainy day. Ain’t no rain gonna keep us from exploring!

Our past few weekends have been really full, too.  One nice, rainy Saturday, my coworker Roxy and her family took me out to eat and for an adventure to Su’ao, where there is a really pretty beach.  We went to a tea shop overlooking the ocean where we sipped on tea and ate cheesecake, ice cream, and brownies.  I like rainy days, and the cafe we were at spoke to my inner literary nerd.  It was the type of place I could see someone going to on cold, overcast days as they sipped steaming tea and wrote their novel.  I think I’ll be back!

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Top: Doesn’t this just make you want to write? Bottom: I still need some practice with chopsticks.

And, last weekend we took our first trip to Taipei.  The Fulbright orientation brought together all the ETA’s and researchers from across the country together for two days.  It was also very rainy in Taipei! A lot of our weekend consisted of running from place to place in our flimsy rain ponchos, trying not to mess up our nice hair and makeup.  I didn’t get the chance to explore too much of the city, but the proximity of Yilan County to Taipei means that its much easier for us to travel there than it is for people in some other locations.  We are only a 1 hour ride from the city on the bus, and buses leave to and from Taipei every 10 minutes, no reservation needed! I’m looking forward to going back and exploring the city at a more leisurely pace.

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Top: The Yilan crew. Bottom: All smiles even in the rain.

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That’s a tall building.  Taipei 101.

We also got to visit the Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Square, which was renamed Liberty Square in 2007 to emphasize Taiwan’s transition to democracy.  The whole complex is an enormous piece of architecture and a popular tourist attraction, and an interesting place to see and to learn about the history and culture of Taiwan.  There is also a pretty little park off to one side where you can escape from the hustle and bustle of Taipei.

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Finally, yesterday we got to meet our host families!  In Taiwan, we don’t live with host families, but in Yilan County we do get paired with a family who will take us to different cultural events and spend time with us based on our hobbies.  I met Annie, my host mom, and she took me to see a surfing beach a little north of Wai’ao where I had gone surfing before. It was awesome because the beach was right up against the mountains, and the lush green foliage combined with the multi-colored blue water made for quite an impressive, paradise-like sight.

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I think I’ll stay here for a while.

And finally, an update on the coffee situation.  I have realized that what people in Taiwan refer to as an “Americano” is actually what we in America would call black coffee, which makes it different from our version of the Americano. Now that I’m learning the lingo, ordering coffee has become a bit easier.

 

School Placements… and karaoke?

The news is in! This year I will be teaching at two schools in Yilan County, Kai-Syuan and Xin-Nan elementary schools.  We taught our first few lessons at these schools this past week, with the first full week of work coming up.  Also, this means that I don’t have to move apartments!  After a lot of decorating and setting up a bulletin board with all my pictures from home, my room is starting to feel a lot more comfy.

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All of the ETAs celebrating with their new co-teachers!

Kai-Syuan and Xin-Nan have different vibes to them.  Kai-Syuan is a bigger school pretty close to where I live, where Xin-Nan is small and rural and a bit further of a drive. I like that the schools have different feels to them, because I think I will learn a lot about teaching in different settings.

In Yilan, all of the ETAs have a Taiwanese teacher of English with them in the classroom as our co-teacher.  My two co-teachers are named Ellen and Alice and I really like working with both of them! I’m glad that I don’t have to do this completely on my own, and think I will learn from both of them.

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Alice, my co-teacher at Xin-Nan

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Ellen, my co-teacher at Kai-Syuan. Featuring Kyle in the background.

 

One of the things I have noticed about schools here is that there is no designated recess time.  Instead, students have either 10 or 20 minute breaks between classes where they can run around and play games. I like this system because it allows the students to stay active and either get out their energy or wake up between classes.

The majority of the ETA’s in Yilan County split their time between two schools Monday-Thursday.  Then, on Fridays, we go to a place called English Village, which is a field trip destination where students interact with English speakers in an “authentic” English environment.  Each of us works at a station (an airport, a doctor’s office, a restaurant, etc.).  We play games with the children and help them learn English that will be helpful in real-world situations.  We start next week there and I’m looking forward to it.

On a completely unrelated note, I’ve had some interesting cultural experiences over the past two weeks.  Last weekend I got the opportunity to visit the Traditional Arts Center in Yilan, which was a complex of historical looking buildings, temples, museums, and shops.  I liked visiting it because it gave me a glimpse into how Taiwan looked in the past.  And I geeked out because I’m a shameless history nerd. Below: Lots of pics from the Traditional Arts Center.

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I also got to experience going to a DMV in another country, which is something I’m not sure many people can claim.  We went to take our scooter license test, and although I passed the written test, I failed my driving test (oops). Thankfully, I get to retake it next week.  I’m confident about my ability to drive a scooter, I just psyched myself out before the test started.

But definitely the most interesting cultural experience of the past two weeks was discovering Taiwan KTV.   KTV is karaoke television, and it is HUGE in Taiwan.  When someone suggested that we do karaoke one night, I pictured a bar with a small stage and a microphone or two. I thought it would be like America where some places have karaoke once a week.  I. Was. Wrong.  Karaoke here is an institution.  We went to the karaoke building, where our group rented an entire room, got to eat a buffet meal, and sing the lyrics to tons of songs (even in English!) on a flat-screen television.  It was far more exciting than anything I’d seen like it in the states.  The best part was when you would sing a song and the TV would play a music video that didn’t match the tone at all. You could be singing “Bad Romance” by Lady Gaga, and the video could be showing the beautiful landscapes of Taiwan.  We had a lot of fun being silly and singing, and I can’t wait to see what KTV is like in a big city like Taipei.

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Buffet!

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Our KTV room

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Flat screen TV

Finally, tea is huge here. I’m a tea drinker, but I think I’ll become even more so as the year progresses. Hot tea is sold for consumption at home, and there are tons of commercialized stands that sell iced tea, in every variation and flavor you can find.  So far, my favorite has been iced green tea with sugar. I want to try more, but I’m going to have to study Chinese characters because that’s all I can order!  Everyone and their cousin seems to have a way to make tea. Even 7-11 has tons of types of cold teas ready for purchase on the hot, August days.

I’m still looking for that perfect cup of coffee.  It seems a lot of people here drink lattes and americanos (hot or cold), and it seems like people use sugar more than cream.  I’ve struggled to find a good cup of coffee with just cream.  However, that could be because I don’t speak very good Chinese and can’t make myself clear. Guess I’ll keep trying! And In the meantime, I’ll drink all the delicious jasmine tea that I bought at the Traditional Arts Center.

Anyway, as I write this, I am sitting on my bed nursing a nasty sunburn on my face after my second day of surfing in Taiwan.  Somehow I managed to get burned even with SPF 50… oh well! I caught some waves, so totally worth it.  I’m off to work on some lesson plans. Stay tuned for more news!

Thoughts so far…

I can’t believe I’ve been in Taiwan for almost two weeks!  Now that I’m finally starting to get settled, I thought I’d share some of my thoughts since arriving.  Everything here is so new and different from what I’m used to at home. I keep trying to take notes on my phone of things that stand out to me.  Sometimes I get frustrated because there is so much of this experience I want to remember and share, but I know it’s impossible to take note of everything that I have seen and done here.  There’s so much to see and do and take in that I bet if you asked five different people what stood out to them the most about being in a new country, they would come up with five different answers.  I know I won’t be able to articulate all the thoughts and experiences I’ve had since coming here, but I want to share some of the experiences that stand out to me.

First off, the fifteen hour flight from Chicago to Taipei was a bit long.  I didn’t sleep very well, probably because of nerves, and the jet lag hit me hard for the first few days.  We got off the plane, met our awesome coordinator for Yilan county, Kelly, who herded us all onto a bus, and off we were to Yilan county where we will be teaching for the next year.  As we drove past Taipei, I caught a glimpse of Taipei 101 from a distance.  Can’t wait to go visit the city properly!

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Our plane was Hello Kitty themed!

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Taipei 101 in the distance

The first few days were a flurry of paperwork, unpacking, visiting schools, and scooter practices.  Walking around in a new city, I felt like I was having sensory overload.  I’m not used to living in an urban area, and I couldn’t read any of the signs because they are all in Mandarin.  However, after walking around town for the past two weeks, everything is starting to become more familiar, and I’ve become a pro at dodging people on scooters.

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Yilan City street scene

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The view from the second floor of the Teacher’s Center where we are having orientation.

Although Yilan is a county with a lot of rural area, two of its main cities, Yilan City and Luodong, have urban vibes.  These are the two cities in Yilan County where the ETA’s are living. As Ross, a former Yilan ETA explained to me, Taiwan is a small island the size of Maryland, and a lot of that area is inhabitable mountains. There are 23 million people living in Taiwan. Because of that, even in more rural counties people congregate in small, dense areas, and cities pop up.

This year there are 8 ETAs in Yilan county. We are split between 3 apartments in Yilan City and Luodong, which are a short train ride from each other.  Right now I am in Yilan City for orientation, but people are potentially moving once we get our school locations.  We will live in the apartment closest to the school we are teaching at.  Below is the street where I’m currently living!

It seems like most people here dress casually and loosely because of the heat.  However, even in the summer it seems some people dress a little more conservatively than we do in America.

One thing I was not prepared for was the heat. Everyone told me it would be hot when I got here, but I didn’t realize just HOW hot they meant.  Many days its 90 degrees with humidity by 9am.  But hey, I’m adjusting!

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You thought I was kidding, didn’t you?

Taiwan is also a big small business place. The Taiwanese take their food seriously, and small restaurants and food shops are found on every corner. Which is good, because it seems like most people here eat out for a lot of their meals, ourselves included! There is a breakfast place I found about a block away from our apartment where I can get this omelette/pancake thing for less than one American dollar.  It’s delicious!  And, I’ve rarely seen forks and spoons here, so I’ve been getting a lot better at using chopsticks.

Highlights of the last few weeks have included visiting both the Luodong and Yilan City night markets, surfing at Wai’ao beach, and finding some good American-style pizza and margaritas at Drifters.

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Darn my eyes are closed. But you can see Turtle Island in the background!

Well, those are some of my first impressions of Taiwan! I find out my school placement tomorrow (or today, depending on when this gets posted), and can then finally begin getting ready to teach. I’m sure I’ll have lots of exciting stories to share once I start my job!

Clockwise from top-left below: A yummy Korean restaurant, Drifter’s Pizza, Yilan City train station, my first glimpse of a night market in Asia, selfies with the other ETA’s, experimenting with night market food, and pizza at the beach.

Puerto Rico

Hey friends! As I slowly get ready to leave for Taiwan, I wanted to make a post about the most recent trip I took.  Another one of my friends and I are both leaving to teach English for the year (he’s going to South Korea), so before we all went our separate ways some of my friends and I decided to take a vacation together. A few brainstorming sessions later and we had our tickets booked to Puerto Rico!

We spent 7 nights in the Caribbean in June.  There were a lot of firsts during this trip. First time planning a big trip with friends, and a (semi) international one at that. First time renting an Airbnb that wasn’t with my parents. First time renting a car. And it actually all went pretty smoothly!

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Two photos of the San Felipe del Morro fort

 

 

I know that Puerto Rico is a United States territory, but to me it felt like taking an international trip.  In a lot of ways Puerto Rico feels like another country, with the four hour flight, language differences, and new cultural experiences.  My friends and I stayed in an Airbnb in the Calle Loiza neighborhood of San Juan.  Calle Loiza is the “hipster neighborhood” of San Juan.  Our hosts were incredibly hospitable.  One of our hosts even came over to check on us one afternoon when the power went out in our part of San Juan, and asked us if we needed candles or anything else.  We didn’t get the chance to talk to too many locals aside from our hosts and Uber drivers, but I still think staying in an Airbnb was a good way to get a feel for local life in San Juan. We probably had a different experience than people who stayed in a resort, but I liked the trip we took.

Tourism is the main industry in Puerto Rico, and outside the tourist-y zones, the country was poorer than I expected it to be.  One of my friends commented that middle class in Puerto Rico is probably very different from middle class on the mainland. I think because I knew P.R. was a U.S. territory, I was expecting it to feel similar to the rest of the country, and I actually had a bit of culture shock during the trip. Now, that being said, at no point did I ever feel unsafe in Puerto Rico. Everyone we talked to was extremely helpful, and the language barrier wasn’t an issue because most people, especially in San Juan and on guided tours, spoke English.  Most people would start conversations in English with us because we obviously looked like tourists.  Pics below: driving through El Yunque.

It was interesting to see the way the area where we were staying was beginning to be gentrified. Upscale boutiques the likes of which you would see on the North side of Chicago, staffed by millennials in fashionable clothing, stood next door to older, more run down shops and bars that looked like they had been there for decades. I wonder how the people in the neighborhood feel about that? It was an interesting process to see in action, and made me reflect on the ways economies change.

I was surprised by just HOW hot it was when we were there. The first few days I was drinking water constantly.  I think though, that part of the reason it felt so hot was that we were outside for most of the day. I’m hoping though that the hot weather I experienced will help train me for Taiwan!

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Beautiful tree-lined streets in Old San Juan.

Also, driving in Puerto Rico is crazy! We rented a car (complete with the under 25 driver fee), and because I chickened out, our friend Michael had to drive the entire time.  We drove on roads with two-lane traffic that were clearly not wide enough for two cars, went up and down steep hills in the dark, and once had to get out of the way of a semi-truck that was so filled with material that the side of the truck was starting to buckle outward. That being said, I think if you have a willing driver, renting a car is a great way to see the island! There’s not much public transport besides Uber that we noticed, so renting a car was a really good option for us, because we wanted to take day trips.

They say that there are no rules on the road as long as you don’t hit anyone (true), although it also seemed like hitting people wasn’t a huge deal, because we saw a lot of cars with dents in them. Thankfully, we managed to return the rental car in one piece and dent free.

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Empanadas. Because they’re delicious, that’s why.

We had a few beach days and also did day trips. My favorite thing we did was definitely the bio-luminescent bay tour in Fajardo.  At night, the water lights up blue because of bacteria that react when the water is disturbed. We paddled from the oceanfront through a river in a mangrove forest to an inland lake where we watched the sunset, and then paddled back in the dark as we saw the bacteria light up.

Other highlights included eating at Pinky’s breakfast cafe, going to the San Felipe del Morro Fort, hiking La Mina Trail in El Yunque, and seeing the Arecibo Observatory. One night we went to La Placita, an outdoor area with bars and clubs, that seemed to be filled with locals and tourists alike.

Puerto Rico was a great experience, and now I’m looking forward to my next adventure (Taiwan!).

Below: Old San Juan showing off.

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